No More Shame: Addressing Stigma As a Barrier to Therapy

For many of our clients, taking the first step toward seeking therapy is often the hardest step they’ll  take toward recovery and self-empowerment. Despite increasing awareness for and access to mental health treatment across the United States, there is still a ton of stigma and shame surrounding seeking help from a licensed professional.

According to a recent study produced by Mental Health America, almost 44 million adults across the United States are currently living with a mental illness. That said, almost 56 percent of those individuals said they did not receive any treatment in the past year. Below, we explore a few myths that are still perpetuated around seeking mental health treatment, and de-bunk these stigmatizing assumptions around therapy.

Myth 1:  “Psychological Illness is different or less important than addressing other health problems”

A person’s environment, upbringing and life circumstances are often linked to mental health and a person’s struggle to manage and cope with life’s circumstances. Additionally, studies also show that there’s a genetic and biological root to many psychological and behavior disorders.. Even so many people may refuse to seek out therapy based on the assumption that it’s not as important as treating other underlying health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes or injuries. The perpetual stigma of mental illness doesn't address the real and underlying causes of emotional issues.. Therefore it perpetuates suffering, making it difficult to make positive decisions for our lives or enjoy our lives. Lastly mental health may be somatized and at the cause of some physical health problems. If this is the case the regimen for somatized symptoms is through mental health treatment.

Myth 2: “Seeking therapy means I’m weak”

It takes a lot of courage to admit or accept your suffering stems from mental illness, an emotional issue, emotional instability, or psychological disorder. Seeking professional help doesn’t mean you’re “losing the battle” — in fact, it means that you’re building up the strength to manage your mental health head-on. That’s bravery. New clients who seek therapy often display remarkable resilience through the process by maintaining jobs, raising families, even starting new relationships despite their struggles with  anxiety, depression and trauma. Therapists are here to  support and cultivate that strength, not get you to admit to any weakness. Additionally, many behaviors that are possibly harmful to you today could be rooted in survival and resilience, and we believe in respect and compassion for those behaviors.

Myth 3: “If I’m ‘crazy’ now, I’ll always be crazy.”

First of all — “crazy” is a stigmatizing and largely meaningless word in the realm of mental health treatment and therapy. Psychological disorders and crises manifest themselves in a variety of different ways. Some people desire or require  long term treatment in varying degrees of intensity. Does that make someone “crazy” though? No. And with therapy, some people may never have a recurrence after seeking out professional care. Additionally, many people seek treatment or choose to remain in treatment for deeper insight, increased communication skills, to continue to make decisions that create a happy and fulfilling life, and find value in both the relationship and support a therapist provides.

Myth 4: “If I go to therapy, I’ll have to spend years dwelling on my childhood and other unimportant parts of my life.”

That all depends on the type of therapy you seek out. Cognitive therapy, for example, focuses on modifying your current behavior and thinking, not your past.. The only way to figure out what kind of treatment is best for you is to talk to a therapist, and possibly explore several options of interventions. A good therapist will listen, help assess if you’re a good fit together, adjust your treatment according to your needs, while staying in their scope of practice. Additionally, while some types of therapy do explore our histories, our past creates who we are today. If current problems are rooted in or began in your past, it could be useful to address them and understand them in the context of and to change your present. This may help uncover hurtful patterns and beliefs that you live with today unquestioned that currently cause you harm.

Myth 5: “If people find out I am in therapy, they will treat me differently — or even reject me.”

Fortunately, therapy is an entirely confidential process. If you don’t want friends, family or your loved ones to know you’re going to therapy, simply don’t tell them. For those whom mental health issues and treatment carry a huge stigma, but that’s changing fast as more and more people are open about their struggles.  The truth is that some people, whether from ignorance, prejudice or their own self-doubt, may treat you differently, or turn you down if you tell them what you’re going through. The trick is knowing whom to tell and when to tell them — and a therapist can help you navigate that. We don’t want our clients to feel shame about coming to therapy. A therapist can work with you to address your fears and how to communicate that you’re in therapy when you’re ready to share that. Taking steps to help yourself live a more happy and fulfilling life is nothing to be ashamed of.

Moving Beyond the Myths

In order to help defeat public and self-stigma around seeking therapy and mental health treatment, we suggest trying out these three approaches in your everyday life: protest, education and contact.

First, we encourage our staff and clients to speak out against inaccurate portrayals of psychotherapy, whether that’s in popular media, day-to-day conversations or other more informal sources. We also encourage people to seek out accurate information about psychotherapy if they’re unsure about seeking treatment — whether that’s through reading books, watching videos or reading up on scientific literature or blog posts online. We also encourage our patients to reach out to the people who have already been in counseling to help assuage their fears and dispel additional judgements or anxieties.

Studies show those who have contact with people who have experienced a mental illness or personal crisis tend to stigmatize therapy less. At the end of the day, normalization, advocacy and self-empowerment can go a long way in defeating the shame many people feel toward reaching out.

Blog authors all hold positions at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective (G&STC). For more information about our therapists and services please contact us.